How Philadelphia Fitness Studios Are Changing Our City — And What It Means for Philly Gyms

Philly's new fitness culture spells trouble for big-box gyms.

Philadelphia Fitness Studis illustration by Gluekit; cycling photo courtesy of Soulcycle; city fitness photo courtesy of Palette Group

Illustration by Gluekit; cycling photo courtesy of Soulcycle; city fitness photo courtesy of Palette Group

When I trained for my first Broad Street Run in 2010, I easily logged more than 150 miles on a treadmill in a musty basement gym with exactly one tiny window and a row of half-functioning TVs. I was happy as an Asics-wearing clam. But over the past six years, I’ve done a complete 180. It’s not that I’ve given up on fitness. Quite the opposite; I’ve since run three more Broad Streets, plus a couple of half-marathons. It’s just that I’ve given up on gyms.

Can you blame me? In a city where there’s free outdoor yoga every day of the summer at Race Street Pier, where SoulCycle will open a Center City location this fall (the singular sign that we, as a fitness city, have arrived), where there are too many running clubs to count, where grassroots communities like Run215 and Women Bike PHL inspire you, in the Nike-est possible way, to just do it — why in the world would I spend my time tethered to a treadmill?

Fitness has long been big business, but lately the money streams have changed. The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association reports that in 2015, the U.S. health-club industry raked in $25.8 billion in revenue, a 6.1 percent increase over 2014. The asterisk here is that “much of the industry’s growth has come from studios or boutiques.” And millennials (surprise!) comprise more than 40 percent of studio membership.

Here in Philly, it’s easy to see how the new fitness order is elbowing in on traditional gyms’ turf. From barre to boxing, flashy fitness studios generate cult-like followings with charismatic teachers and exclusive classes, not to mention a steady flow of students willing to pay $30 per session. Meantime, Philly’s no-less-cultlike community fitness groups, like the November Project, are keeping everybody’s checking accounts in the black with twice-weekly free workouts, free high fives and — wait for it — free hugs. Even personal trainers, looking to rebrand themselves as “fitness personalities,” frequently run free boot camps all over town.

“I technically go to a gym in Center City,” says Annie Acri, 30, of Fairmount. “I’ve probably been there five times since January. There was no community, nothing that motivated me to come back.”

Acri found her community at Run215, the wildly popular two-year-old Facebook group, with more than 6,000 members, whose sole purpose is to get Philadelphians amped on running. Then she discovered ClassPass, a service new to Philly last year that gives users access to unlimited classes at Philadelphia fitness studios for a flat monthly fee. Acri says she attends about 15 classes a month. “Everyone’s in the same mind-set,” she explains. “Besides, Flywheel’s bathroom is better than mine at home, and they have better beauty products.”

“The new fitness culture is changing how traditional gyms think about what they do,” says Tom Wingert, marketing director at City Fitness, which has three big-gym locations in Philly and, as of last summer, a boutique-like studio in Society Hill. “Our biggest challenge has been, how can we find ways to grow as a company in the face of new competition?” His answer: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

No, really: In the year that Wingert, a former nonprofit fund-raiser, has been at the helm, he’s created some of the biggest and best buzz I’ve seen from a big-box gym in a long time. And he’s done it by, in his words, “supporting the fitness culture in Philadelphia” — that is, meeting the community where it is right now and creating a place for his brand in that world, via smart social-media-driven fitness challenges (his recent #MyCityMoves campaign counted Philadelphia Eagle Connor Barwin as a participant), a soon-to-be-built outdoor fitness facility in Point Breeze where City Fitness will offer free classes, and a new emphasis on wearable fitness technology.

“I don’t think gyms are dead,” says Wingert, noting that City Fitness will open a tricked-out big-box gym (with a juice bar, naturally) in Fishtown this September and has plans for further expansion across the city. “But to stay relevant, they have to improve their business model.”

I’m sure he’s right. There always will be someone willing to train for Broad Street on a treadmill. Just don’t expect that person to be me.

Published as “Let ’Em See You Sweat” in Philadelphia magazine.